Proteins are the basic building blocks of the human body. They are made up of amino acids, and help build muscles, blood, skin, hair, nails and internal organs. It is an essential nutrient that performs many important roles, including:
Tissue repair and growth
Manufacturing hormones and enzymes
Providing energy when carbohydrates are not available
Preserving lean muscle mass
Insufficient protein in the diet can limit the amount of protein available for daily cell function and muscle building. It also is especially important for growth and development during childhood, adolescence and pregnancy.
While it’s important that you get enough protein, and most Americans tend to meet their minimum requirements, it also is important not to get too much protein. Some people think that excess protein won’t lead to weight gain, but protein foods do contain calories, and our bodies will use only what they need. Excessive calories of all forms can lead to excess pounds. Too much protein also could contribute to high cholesterol.
According to the Dietary Reference Intakes published by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), adults should get 10-35 percent of their total caloric intake from protein. An easier way to estimate your protein needs is to aim for two to three servings a day of foods high in protein, with each serving being about 3-4 ounces, or the size of a deck of cards. Athletes, including bodybuilders and distance runners, may need slightly higher protein intake.
Make sure you are getting healthy proteins, though. Good quality, lean sources of protein include lean beef, chicken and fish. Eggs, low-fat cheeses, low-fat milk and yogurt, beans, and nuts and seeds also are good sources of protein. Some examples of “less healthy” protein choices include high-fat meats, such as bacon and sausage, and anything deep-fried, including fried chicken or fish.
If you are a vegetarian, it’s still important and possible to get adequate amounts of protein daily. Good vegetarian protein sources include eggs, milk, yogurt, beans, tofu, and nuts and seeds, including nut butters like peanut and almond butter. There also are some great veggie substitutes for meat products - veggie burgers, veggie chicken and even veggie hot dogs. Many of these products are very tasty substitutes.
Also, remember that foods high in protein slow down the digestion of carbohydrates. Try to eat a combination of lean protein and healthy carbohydrates at meals and snacks. The combination of lean protein and healthy carbohydrates keeps blood sugar levels steadier, keeps you feeling full longer and keeps energy levels stable.
Keep in mind that eating a well-balanced diet with lean meats, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy is the key to overall good health. For more information on dietary guidelines, serving sizes and tips for healthy diets, check out the USDA’s MyPyramid by visiting www.mypyramid.gov, or call the Blount Memorial Weight Management Center at 865-977-4673.
Angie Tillman is a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and director of the Blount Memorial Weight Management Center.